In 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unleashed a national political and legal tempest when he issued about 4,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At a time when gay marriage was expressly prohibited by California law, even many of Newsom’s allies wondered aloud whether the rising Democratic star had effectively sabotaged his political career. Others grumbled that by forcing the hot-button issue into the presidential campaign, he’d handed a sharp weapon to the Republicans. During two political fundraisers in San Francisco that year, Barack Obama infamously refused to be photographed with Newsom.
But history was on Newsom’s side. In 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Proposition 8, a subsequent, voter-backed constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, was later invalidated by a federal appeals court in a decision the US Supreme Court allowed to stand. Friday’s Supreme Court ruling has enshrined same-sex marriage as the law of the land, offering Newsom, now California’s lieutenant governor, sweet vindication 11 years after he took his rogue stance. I spoke with Newsom on Friday afternoon.
Mother Jones: Did you ever imagine that you would see this day in your lifetime?
Gavin Newsom: No. I’d like to say something differently and romanticize the experience and the sentiment. But at the end of 2004, when we started to see the reaction to what happened in San Francisco and, in some respects, what was going to happen in Massachusetts with these constitutional amendments, and in state after state, and politicians running, not walking, away from supporting marriage equality, I really thought I’d be 30 years older than I am today.
MJ: Back in 2004, how did you first get the idea to perform these marriages?
GN: I was invited to Washington, DC, after just becoming mayor. Nancy Pelosi was kind enough to offer me a ticket to watch George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. Bush ended with a pronouncement supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Afterward, I was going back to get my cell phone, and a couple was standing right next to me in line and they were celebrating the president’s speech. I remember it like it was yesterday—the way one of the two referred to the “homosexual agenda.” They were so proud that the president was finally going to “fix” that. And it was the way they said “homosexual” that really struck a chord to me. Rather than walking downstairs to participate in a reception with Nancy Pelosi, I literally walked outside the Capitol and picked up my phone and called my staff and said, “We need to do something about it.” And it was literally that moment that triggered a series of events that ultimately led to Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin getting married and then, subsequently, 4,035 other couples from 46 states and six countries.
MJ: Performing these marriages was quite controversial at the time, even among some of your supporters. Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts congressman, dismissed it as divisive and “a symbolic point.” What have the intervening years shown about this?
GN: Well, it wasn’t symbolic. What happened in San Francisco triggered a lawsuit against the state, which worked its way to the California Supreme Court, and it was hardly a symbolic victory when the court adjudicated in favor of same-sex marriage: It became legal in California. And then Prop. 8 led to the federal efforts at the Supreme Court and the DOMA decision. And then, of course, that led to a series of other federal court decisions, which ultimately led to this decision. So I’ll push back a little and say that it wasn’t symbolic. I think putting 4,036 couples’ lives day in and day out in people’s living rooms and forcing people to have conversations they wouldn’t have had in the past was more than symbolic.
I think Barney’s public comments were benign compared to his private comments. But he was one of many—and I have great admiration for Barney Frank, a remarkable, remarkable human being. It really broke my heart, the comments from many Democratic leaders. The most disheartening part of this wasn’t the predictable opposition; it was folks who always told me when they were giving me advice—a newly minted politician—to stand on principle and always do what I think is right. And the minute I did that, they were the first to criticize. And so that was difficult.
The subsequent years were even more difficult. In 2005, 2006, 2007, and a good part of 2008, you had all these states that had passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. You had public opinion that was beginning to move, but not at a trajectory that suggested this would happen as quickly as it did.
The vast majority of elected officials found a comfortable place to go, and that was called “civil unions”—which was always a curious dance because these were the same politicians that were celebrating annually Brown v. Board of Education, making the case that separate is not equal. Or were talking about the Democratic Party in a history of women’s rights and civil rights, and then even making the case with a straight face that we were the party of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. But when it came to marriage, “well, you have second-class status.” And they were out there soliciting support for votes and soliciting money from the same people that they weren’t championing.
But nonetheless, people just didn’t give up. The unsung heroes are the millions and millions of people across this country who engaged in conversations. And many of those one-on-one conversations made people think twice about their original positions. At the end of the day it was nothing more than the aggregation of those conversations and the courage of people to stand up to even their parents, to say, “No Dad, you’re wrong on this—it’s wrong to deny Uncle Bob the ability to get married; it’s your brother. How dare you subjugate him to second-class status?” It was literally those conversations that changed public opinion, gave politicians more courage, and brought us to where we are today.
MJ: People said at the time that you were destroying your political career by doing this. And obviously that has not come to pass.
GN: Not yet (laughs).
MJ: But do you feel that you paid a price for it at all?
GN: Yeah, I mean, it didn’t matter to me. People always thought I’d never get elected outside San Francisco; I was always more worried that I’d never get elected again inside San Francisco. You’ve got to remember that I came from the Catholic, west-side base of San Francisco’s political scene. At the time I was the only elected official in San Francisco born in San Francisco. It was the native San Franciscans who got me elected. And they were offended and affronted by this.
When I did run for lieutenant governor, I was as curious as anyone else on election day what would happen. I was thinking, “Okay, maybe they are right.” The state is hardly the Bay Area. There are 58 counties of which maybe a dozen have opposed Prop. 8, but the vast majority of counties supported Prop. 8. It didn’t seem to impact [the election], but we will see in the future.
MJ: Back in 2004, Democrats, including US Senator Dianne Feinstein, were saying, this is going to play into the hands of Republicans, that you’re giving them a gift. What do you think about that now, looking back?
GN: I literally was having lunch with Dianne Feinstein the day of the election. She is a very close personal friend, not just a political mentor, so I care deeply about her point of view. I certainly paid attention to what she said after election day.
But I will say this: I can assure you people would have said the same thing back in 2006, when we were trying to take back the House. People would have said, “Hold on, now. More vulnerability, and with all these swing counties across the country, this is the last thing we need now. Young man, just hold on.” And then of course, in 2008, they would say, “Wait a second, we’ve got to win the White House. This is not the right time!” Only to go back to 2010: “We’ve got a midterm! And this is a wedge issue. Public opinion is not there yet.” And then of course, miraculously, in 2012, public opinion began to change. Well, it wouldn’t have changed if folks had not pushed the issue.
The “it’s always the right time to do the right thing” quote of MLK is resonant in my mind. There was nothing that mattered more to me at the time than when someone sent me the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” I told my staff, “This is the right thing to do, and it’s always the right time to do the right thing. If you believe in something, do something.”
I paid a lot of attention to my critics, and trust me, it went far beyond the two you’ve mentioned. There was a very notable one that’s one of the most, if not the most famous politician on planet Earth. In the backdrop of all that, we needed a little historical anchoring to be able to sleep at night because I sure as hell didn’t want to have to be responsible for [re-electing] Bush.
MJ: Speaking of Barack Obama, he was on the same page as you with this issue, before he wasn’t. Back in 1996, he actually said he supported legalizing same-sex marriage. Is there a lesson here?
GN: I know, it was frustrating. You can take the same set of facts and there’s two different lessons. One lesson is he is a two-term president who is now working on his presidential library. He has been not extraordinarily successful; he has been uniquely extraordinarily successful. What an amazing human being, what an amazing life and career, and it’s not even halfway over, so you could say he had a pretty good playbook when it comes to this.
The other lesson is a more cynical lesson. Part of that playbook is having strong private points of view that you don’t necessarily have to advance or express publicly. I admire him beyond words, but I was very hurt in those early years.
At the same time, this president has done more for the LGBT community than any president in history. It’s just an objective fact. And his legacy is secure in terms of the advancement of the rights of the LGBT community, from Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to his support for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and of course marriage equality, work on HIV and AIDS, and other things as we continue the fight.
MJ: Taking positions that may conflict with one’s own personal view is the nature of politics. But at the same time, there come times when you feel like you have to hold true to yourself. Why was this one of those times for you?
GN: Because this is about human beings, it’s about love, it’s about life. If you distill the essence of everything, what life is about, every single one of us is given a short moment in time on this planet, and we all have one universal need and desire, and that is to be loved and to love. And to deny that for your own political expediency, I don’t want to live in that column, it ain’t worth it. So this to me was a no-brainer.
And I’ve got to tell you, it has informed me [on other issues]. That is why I came out years ago to legalize marijuana, because I can’t be that person on any issue. I just can’t do it. I am not that good. I can’t fake it. And I won’t.
Do what you think is right, because one damn thing is an absolute certainly: We come and go. Politicians are a dime a dozen. We are given a very short moment in time, and people don’t give a damn about us. It ain’t about us. And we get so damn consumed that somehow we have superiority or something that is unique and special about us, and then we become a self-preservation project, and we lose complete touch with you and everybody else. Is it any wonder that people hold us in such low esteem? People don’t care anymore because they don’t believe in us, they don’t trust us. And that’s why we should change politics, not just accept the cynical frame that, “well, that’s just politics.”
MJ: It’s not leadership if it isn’t risky.
GN: Yeah, like they say, dogs don’t bark at parked cars. I’m happy to have folks convinced I’m not all that, because at least I am doing something, I’m standing for something, I’m leaning in.